1. Literary 007 Reviewed: Ian Fleming's 'Moonraker' (Part I)

    By Devin Zydel on 2008-03-04
    Ian Fleming

    Ian Fleming

    With 2008 marking the centenary of Ian Fleming, the newest review series, Literary 007 Reviewed, now continues with the author’s third James Bond adventure, 1955’s Moonraker.

    As several CBn Forum members are already aware, every two months a James Bond adventure is chosen for members of the Blades Library Book Club to read. Proceeding in chronological order, the club first read Fleming’s Moonraker back in May 2004.

    What follows are selected reviews from the Book Club Forum members. For further details on the club or to post your own review of Moonraker, simply click here.

    This is Part I of the Moonraker reviews. Part II to follow on the CBn main page shortly.

    Literary 007 Reviewed:

    ‘Moonraker’ reviewed by… clinkeroo

    What strikes me with Moonraker is that Fleming must have decided at this point to abandon his “Bond as an everyman” approach and actually began to delve into Bond’s character more, giving us details of his England, his job, his flat, his life, that had been denied to us previously. Early on in the series, Fleming spoke and wrote about wanting Bond to be an undetermined character, so that the reader could easily place himself into the protagonist’s role. But as the public’s hunger for Bond grew, he began to flesh out the character more, making him more human, and less of the hard case blunt instrument that Fleming originally envisioned.

    Leaving the book in England gives it more of a gritty feel to me, and fleshes out the series and the character more by showing us the details of his day-to-day life. Maybe it makes Bond more human to know that he sometimes lives a life that isn’t all too different from our own, and that he too doesn’t always get the girl in the end, he doesn’t always get exotic locales, and stay in the finest hotels. The pain he experiences in this novel comes across as more intense, not just because of Fleming’s excellent prose and descriptions, but because we now see Bond as a defined, real human being (something the films have lost entirely) and when the horrible things start to happen, we feel for him.

    This is the novel that ties Bond to England the most, and defines him as an Englishman. We see him interacting within the social structure of the country, and we also how deeply his patriotic feelings are part of his make-up. For the time, the plot was one of the most fantastical of the series, and Fleming took quite a bit of criticism for it (even in the Authorized Biography of 007 Pearson writes off the entire adventure as a fabrication), but I think that Fleming pulls it off so well because his characters are so realistic; they bleed, they blister, they have their petty little quirks and misgivings.

    The only thing that bothers me about this book is the number of times in the first third of the novel that someone thinks, or says, “But why would a man such as Drax cheat at cards?” I know it is a significant plot device to keep driving the point home, but Lord, it becomes like the beating of Poe’s Tell-tale Heart. It would make a great drinking game as well; while reading Moonraker take a drink every time someone wonders why Drax was cheating.

    Great, great stuff. This is my fourth reading, and it loses nothing. It’s strange, how as one ages, more facets of Fleming’s writing are opened up to the reader.

    ‘Moonraker’ reviewed by… Triton

    I enjoyed reading Moonraker very much and will give a four out of five stars.

    I believe that an ICBM silo and a story about the creation of an ICBM in Great Britain was exotic, exciting, futuristic, and interesting back in 1955. Remember that this novel was written two years before Soviet rocket scientist Sergei Korolev launched the R-7, the world’s first ICBM, with the world’s first man-made sattelite aboard, Sputnik. An event that started the space-race between the United States and the Soviet Union.

    In 2004, people frequently lose sight of what a technological accomplishment it was to create the world’s first artificial sattelite and launch it successfully, put the first person into orbit, and then land the first human beings on the face of the moon.

    The novel also plays into the fears that people had at the time of atomic bombs and death from nuclear war was a very real possibility.

    I also think that the idea of having a Briton financing the world’s first ICBM appealed to Fleming’s sense of national pride.

    The British aviation industry at the time was also one of the most technologically advanced and had a commanding lead in commercial aviation by producing the world’s first jet passenger aircraft, the de Havilland Comet. So where else would Fleming had set is novel other than London and Kent?

    The idea of employing German rocket scientists, most of them ex-Nazis, to build the next generation of military rockets and spacecraft was also contemporary. Remember this was the time that Dr. Werner von Braun was in the United States evangilising man’s conquest of space and making films with Walt Disney on the subject.

    Also the idea of an ex-Nazi masquerading as a captain of industry who intends to inflict revenge on one of the allied powers for the defeat of the Third Reich was also a new one at thetime. The idea would be used so many times since the publication Moonraker in books, television, and films that it has become a tired cliche. I don’t know if Fleming came up with it, but after all the ex-Nazis we have seen in television shows like The Saint and movies like The Odessa File and Boys From Brazil, I am sick to death of the idea.

    Since I have never travelled to England or Europe, the locations of London and Kent are exotic to me.

    The novel itself is more of a mystery for James Bond to solve than an action/adventure thriller. I like the element of chance that brings M and James Bond into the story. If Basildon, the Chairman of Blades, hadn’t approached M about exposing Drax as a cheat at bridge the conspiracy to destroy London would never have been revealed.

    I did find the bridge game between Bond, M, Drax, and Meyer to be very exciting and interesting.

    We also have the explosion of the chalk cliff intended by Drax and Krebs to kill Bond and Gala Brand.

    The car chase between Bond’s Bentley and Drax’s Mercedes Type 300 S was exciting.

    Kreb’s threat of torture with “The Persauder”, blow torch, does cause suspense and tension.

    We certainly can feel Bond’s flesh blister and burn when Drax and Krebs use hot steam to flush out the hiding Bond and Gala Brand.

    The idea of perishing from the fiery blast of a rocket was also probably new at the time.

    In the climax of the novel we have an atomic blast of the Moonraker that kills the fleeing Drax and Krebs on a Soviet submarine in addition to collateral damage, such as the destruction of the HMS Merganzer and the South Goodwin Lightship. Again, the idea was probably new in 1955.

    I also like the fact that in the end James Bond doesn’t get the girl with Gala Brand announcing that she intends to marry Detective-Inspector Vivian.

    My only complaint of the novel really, and this is a big one, is that it was much too convenient for Graf Hugo von Drache to masquarade as British officer Hugo Drax. I felt that was very sloppy story telling on Fleming’s part that there just happened to be a Hugo Drax in the listing of officers assigned to the barracks that the Nazi commando team destroyed. What an incredible co-incidence. I found it too incredible to be believable.

    ‘Moonraker’ reviewed by… Loomis

    Not my favourite of the Flemings. I want to read about Bond in exotic locations, not in places like London and Kent (Bond may be a Brit, but he sure as heck doesn’t belong in Britain – he belongs on Caribbean beaches, in New York, in the south of France, in the Far East….). And 007 doesn’t even get his end away!

    Fleming must have been in a particularly sadistic mood while writing Moonraker, as though determined to deny his readers the very thrills that made them seek out his novels in the first place.

    ‘Moonraker’ reviewed by… Willie Garvin

    Five stars.

    Moonraker is one of Fleming’s very best novels almost equal to From Russia With Love and the three books comprising his masterful “Blofeld Trilogy” (Thunderball, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and You Only Live Twice). Everything works here and the story itself is fascinating. In a sense, this is our first introduction to the more fully realized James Bond of the later books. The human 007. And in that sense alone, it’s really quite remarkable.

    Casino Royale is an interesting albeit tentative experiment on Fleming’s part, and Live and Let Die is a fine thriller introducing us to more of Bond’s world. We met Felix Leiter in this and this is the film Licence to Kill drew it’s inspiration from. But Moonraker, is I think, the superior novel.

    In Moonraker, James Bond has more dimensions than Fleming has shown us before and thus there’s a greater depth to his world. For example,we learn how old (the ageless) James Bond is. We get a more detailed description of the Double-O division. We see Bond’s office and his first secretary, Loelia Ponsonby. Also the shooting range and we even learn more about the guns 007 favors and why he likes them. Moreover, we see Bond’s grey Bentley, his flat and are introduced to his cleaning lady, “the old Scottish treasure” May. And we even enter the ultraexclusive Blades Club. So much… and so much more than the previous entries in the nascent series.

    Additionally, Moonraker presents the reader with the first fully realized grotesque villain of the series. The first true larger than life ogre who’ll serve as the template for so many of 007’s future adversaries. Sir Hugo Drax is a very bad man–we first know this because he cheats at cards. But also because he is ugly and bad tempered and rude. Not a gentleman but a monster. And Drax is also foreign born–almost always a sign of evil in Fleming’s world (although he’s fairly forgiving of Americans and the occasional Australian). Sir Hugo Drax is a dragon indeed, and the clearest instance of such for Bond’s St. George to confront and destroy.

    The card game is a true highlight and the scene preceeding it, with M asking Bond to do him a favor and expose Drax as the cheater he is, is one of the best sequences in the entire series. It shows us that even the implacable Admiral Messervy is human and it also lays the groundwork for the gruff Father/Son relationship M and Bond have in the remaining novels.

    Drax’s suspicious Moonraker missile program is not without interest as well. An attempt at giving the U.K. something resembling an early space program and if only within the context of the story it’s quite impressive. Fleming’s fondness for Bond’s two-way radio in the Bentley is one of his few attempts at giving the literary Bond state-of-art gadgetry. It’s simplicity is charming.

    And then there’s Galetea “Gala” Brand–the first and only woman among the many feminine protagonists in the many novels to turn James Bond down. She’s well drawn and is one of Fleming’s more fully realized females. Another good addition and certainly an offbeat one.

    One of the greatest strengths of this novel–beyond it’s colorful characters– is its sense of time. The clock is ticking and there’s a real urgency that won’t be evident again until the appearance of Thunderball. And the locations–all of them in Britain–mark another change of pace for Fleming. As always his descriptions are what make the book work. Fleming’s skill with the English language turns even the most fantastical moments–among them Hugo Drax’s climactic revelation– seem almost normal and credible.

    Overall, Moonraker is easily one of Ian Fleming’s better books. He was clearly enjoying himself with this one and his enthusiasm shows. Yes, the Die Another Day movie was inspired by this book and so was the Moonraker motion picture, but this novel is vastly superior to them both.


    ‘Moonraker’ reviewed by… SPECTRE ASSASSIN

    Great, enjoyable read Moonraker was. I enjoyed the fast-pace storytelling by Fleming. Maybe the plot was reasonably on the side of less credibility, but I enjoyed nonetheless. Great characters were a plus in this entry. Gala Brand was a smart, independent Bond girl. She didn’t fancy Bond’s charms, but near the end she gained his trust in order to stop the evil Hugo Drax. Brand’s surprising personal twist at the end of the book was realistic and more credible in a Bond novel. Not everybody can be wooed by James Bond, Agent 007.

    A fun read!

    ‘Moonraker’ reviewed by… Bond111

    I gave it 4/5 stars. Not perfect, but very close. I thought it had somewhat of a slow start (although I love seeing Bond’s life in London), but it picked up in the middle, and had a great end. Definitely in my top five.

    ‘Moonraker’ reviewed by… manfromjapan

    Just finished the book. It really did pick up its pace and improve. In the end, I think it is a good book, but not as good as the previous two. It lacks scope, the Fleming sweep and a sense of location. The beginning of the book is dull, despite learning more about Bond (too much?) and an exciting if not so new card duel. I liked Bond’s relationship with Gala (it had humour similar to Roger Moore’s needling of Anya in The Spy Who Loved Me), and the fact he didn’t get his ****s in. Drax is an interesting villain too. By the way, I know everybody already recognised this, but I was amused by Fleming’s reference to Lonsdale when describing Drax. It was Michael Lonsdale who played him in the 1979 film!

    I also thought the deliberate miscalculation of the rocket perhaps inspired the deliberate miscalculation of the GPS signals in Tomorrow Never Dies.

    And there is the villain attacking London as personal revenge – GoldenEye.

    ‘Moonraker’ reviewed by… Lazenby880

    I love the opening of Moonraker for [the card duel]. Good to see some of Bond’s humdrum life, not always globe-trotting and tracking down implausible villains via remarkable coincidence. Grounding the story more and revealing more aspects of Bond’s life allows the reader to identify with him to a greater extent, as well as providing a deeper (and fascinating) characterisation. In that sense I concur with clinkeroo, the pain that Bond experiences in the novel is all the more real to the reader given that one feels that he is a more recognisable human being. And in my opinion the Fleming sweep is most definitely evident in Moonraker, there may be little exoticism in comparison with, say, Dr. No but his prose is just as mesmeric.

    In fact, I very much appreciate the change in pace with Moonraker, testament to Fleming’s flexibility. The novel may not be gritty in any meaningful sense, however I like the fact that here we are given a far more down-to-earth adventure that is just as enthralling (moreso, in some respects) than some of his other rather more ‘wider of scope’ novels. And the bittertsweet ending is something to beat.

    ‘Moonraker’ reviewed by… blackjack60

    Fleming wrote Moonraker after interest had been expressed in turning Live And Let Die into a movie. But according to what Fleming told the movie-men, Moonraker would make an even better film, since it had been inspired by an idea Fleming devised for a movie. How ironic that the film of Moonraker has less to do with the original novel than any of the Bond films! If only the filmmakers had decided to adapt the book in 1967, instead of ruining You Only Live Twice.

    As for the novel, it’s in the second tier of Bond books: not one of the best, but pretty good. As Fleming himself admitted, the story is broken-backed: the novel divides into the bridge game (well-written, but not very exciting if you don’t know anything about bridge) and the rocket story. As Andrew Lycett noted, Moonraker is also a tribute to Fleming’s favorite parts of England. Unfortunately, these locations don’t have the exotic features of the more foreign locations of the other books. Dover and Kent are undoubtedly very pretty, but they’re not gripping. In a way, that’s the point: Drax wishes to destroy an England that’s homey and comforting to Bond.

    Drax himself is one of Fleming’s more atypical villains. He is a vulgarian, unlike the sophisticated figures of Le Chiffre, Mr. Big, Dr. No, or Blofeld. And Drax speaks English informally, like a native speaker. In these respects, the villain closest to him is Scaramanga, but Drax is an infinitely more interesting figure. With his inferiority complex, boorishness, and bullying, he may be the most psychologically developed of the Bond villains, as well as the one with the most childish motive: the get back at all the nasty boys who picked on him for sucking his thumb.

    The prospect of a film adaptation may explain why Fleming decided to flesh out Bond’s home world and habits (I’m hoping that Loelia Ponsonby will be introduced into the post-Casino Royale movies). And some aspects of the book, such as the auto chase, are inherently cinematic. Others, such as the bridge game, aren’t. Neither is Fleming’s frankly unsatisfactory method of having a radio announcer tell us about the Moonraker’s destruction. The climax gives Bond little to do beside adjust some gyros and get under a shower and wait. It’s not enough to hear about Drax getting his comeuppance–I want to see the bastard explode, or at least have the grin wiped off his face when he sees Bond save the day. Fleming, after being left to cool his heels by the film studios, eventually sat down and wrote an actual script for Moonraker. I’d sell my grandmother to read it and see how he might have changed the book for the screen.

    The most vivid parts of the book take place before the rocket’s launch–when Drax reveals his true identity, beats up Bond, and when Bond and Gala escape . The beatings, painful escape up the air vents, and the ordeal with the steam-hose are described with a sensual immediacy and sado-masochistic vibe that resurface again in Doctor No, with Fleming fetishistically noting every painful sensations his hero/stand-in feels as he undergoes one physical obstacle after another, his endurance and tolerance of pain put to the test.

    Some other cinematic aspects of the book neglected by the cinema: the idea of a neo-nazi villain, which you’d think the Bond films would have used by now, and the beautifully done scene of Gala’s rejection. 50 years later it’s still shocking to see Bond not only not get the girl, but not even score. I don’t think there’s a single person who’s read the book and not been surprised by the ending. If only the movies had the courage for such a realistic, downbeat touch!

    As a character Gala starts off well–she’s resentful toward the flashy double-00 agent and doesn’t think he’s all that–but like all of Fleming’s heroines, once she opens up she becomes vastly less interesting. And by modern standards, Bond’s behavior (sneaking up on her from underwater to plant a kiss) would be sexual harrassment. But Gala of course, cannot get angry at the dashing, undeniably handsome Bond, toward whom even the most frigid of lesbians ultimately must surrender, and if it weren’t for that explosion, I’m not sure if Gala wouldn’t have either. But her final decision to stick with her fiance makes her a memorable addition to the Bond girls pantheon. As a I reread the books in adulthood, I can finally understand John Pearson’s critical complaint about the Bond girls being rather insubstantial creatures. He’s right, though in the course of my re-readings I hope Tiffany Case, who I remember as spunky, neurotic and rounded girl, might prove an exception to the rule.

    Keep your eyes on the CBn main page for further reviews of Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007 adventures in the upcoming months.